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NEH Funds W&L Digital Humanities Project

The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded a Washington and Lee University team with a major digital humanities grant of $74,500. The Digital Humanities Start-Up grant will support 18 months of continued work on the Ancient Graffiti Project. Led by Rebecca Benefiel, associate professor of Classics, and Sara Sprenkle, associate professor of computer science, The Ancient Graffiti Project will create an online search and mapping platform for locating and studying graffiti preserved in the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The project involves collaborators from around the globe. “We began the project three years ago with our Classics and computer science students,” Benefiel said. “Over the past two years, nearly 50 people have now contributed to that, either through our field work in Herculaneum, Italy, or in a workshop I led last summer at the Center for Hellenic Studies, an institute of Harvard University in Washington, D.C., or as sustaining members during the academic year in teams at W&L and Millsaps College.”

The NEH grant will specifically fund the development of critical software tools for studying and analyzing graffiti located in these cities. Unlike modern graffiti, Roman graffiti served as an interactive form of public communication and expression. Prayers, word games, poems, drawings and many other missives were scratched by every class of Roman citizen onto buildings’ plaster walls, making these artifacts a tremendous cultural resource for historians and classicists.

While the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD and the subsequent preservation of Pompeii and Herculaneum are well known, documentation of the thousands of inscriptions found in these cities is often difficult to access. The Ancient Graffiti Project will address this issue by making the more than 7,000 individual graffiti from these two cities available to anyone with an Internet connection. The sophisticated search system and digital mapping platform developed by the W&L team will allow users to find graffiti based on a wide range of factors and to study them building by building or with city-wide searches across the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

“The Ancient Graffiti Project is the epitome of the liberal arts: applying computational techniques to solve humanistic problems,” Sprenkle said. “It’s a lot of fun to work on the project, and it’s accessible to students. They get experience in planning, designing and implementing a real application that they can point to as a project they worked on. Students must find solutions to the client’s problems, which often involves researching what tools and approaches are available and figuring out how to apply them to the problem. They also learn how to communicate with a client (in this case, Professor Benefiel) in her domain’s language.”

Benefiel noted that the unique nature of graffiti required that the Ancient Graffiti Project create its platform largely from scratch, including the maps of Herculaneum. At the same time, the team sought to make their work as open and accessible as possible. “Our aim from the beginning has been to integrate our project with other major initiatives, so we contributed our plans of Herculaneum to OpenStreetMap; we have been working from the outset contributing content to the Epigraphic Database Roma; we are now part of EAGLE (Europeana network of Ancient Greek and Latin Epigraphy), so that a user will search inscriptions and can be directed from EAGLE back to our site; and we are developing links with other projects as well,” she said.

This grant is the latest of several for the Ancient Graffiti Project, which has also received funding through W&L’s Digital Humanities grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and from a grant awarded by the Associated Colleges of the South. These grants have supported fieldwork in Italy, cataloging efforts, and prototype development of the website and search engine. In addition to its success with funding, the Ancient Graffiti Project has also received national attention, including being featured in a recent article in The Atlantic.

While many W&L faculty have received individual NEH fellowships, especially in recent years, this grant is W&L’s first organizational award since 1980. The National Endowment for the Humanities was established in 1965 as an independent federal agency. It supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the agency and its grant programs is available at http://www.neh.gov.